Mary Swedenburg, Missionary to Japan

November 23rd, 2012 by JeDye

Mary Swedenburg, was born in Reform, Pickens County, Alabama, and grew up in Hueytown, Jefferson County, Alabama. Her ties have been so close and strong to Pickens County that we have called her our own missionary.

She has warm memories of Addie Estelle Cox and the churches in Pickens County where she visited often with her father James (Jim) R. Swedenburg, Sr., who pastored here.  Mary believes that Addie Cox was the key to her Dad’s love for missions and ultimately for hers.  She remembers that Cross Roads Baptist, one of the churches where he pastored, collected money for Addie to carry a bicycle back with her to China. This church was always active in praying for missionaries.

Mary later considered Addie Cox to be her model – her mentor.  She remembered that she and her sister Martha stopped on one occasion at Addie’s home in Carrollton when Addie was on furlough.  Addie gave her a Chinese Gospel of John and took up so much time with them that Mary remembers even today how special it was to spend time with Miss Addie.

To understand Mary’s story, it will be helpful to us to look back at her family and her upbringing.  Her father James Swedenburg, Sr., was from the Millport area  and her mother, Trannie Ola was from Kennedy with many relatives in Pickens County.  The Swedenburg family was sharecroppers in Millport and from this humble beginning went on to touch many lives over our association, the State of Alabama, and eventually over the world.  Bro. Jim Swedenburg quit school to be a barber.  It was then that he felt the call by God and knew that he would need to go back to school to be prepared to be a pastor.   He became  bi-vocational and although he had opportunities to enter the business world, he knew that God had called him as a “preacher.”

He pastored the churches of  Hebron, Bethlehem, West End, Pleasant Hill, and Cross Roads in our association.   He had a desire to see children grow in their Christian life and go on to college for an education.  He did a lot of visiting and knew that if he worked with the Lord, he would have to be involved with the people, spend time with them and encourage them.  He wanted people to know Christ and the churches to grow.

Mary remembers that the family was taught that their home was built upon God; and that they were going to serve Him and serve Him she did.    Mary was involved in VBS as a teenager- going to revivals – driving the car out to get the kids – and even then could not stand that some children were not going to hear the story of Christ or have the ability to get out of their poverty.

Her Dad had a strong desire to replace wooden buildings with lasting church buildings and helped to do this at Cross Roads and Bethlehem.  He knew the old way would pass away and he wanted the children to have a place to worship and grow.  Many times he gave his salary back to the churches; stressed budgeting; recognized that every strong mission church had a WMU mother; wanted strong and growing churches with education and a love to serve Christ and for the world to know Christ.  He even helped with singing schools after morning worship.  So, it was  no surprise that his son James and  his daughter Mary were called to international missions.

Mary received her education at Livingston State College, Oklahoma Baptist University and a Master of Religious Education Degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  There she learned a very important mission concept – “Don’t tell someone about Jesus unless you realize that in the next second they could be your brother or sister.” She graduated from the seminary in May 1969.

Before her appointment by the FMB, Mary taught school in the Hueytown High School.  She was appointed by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in June of 1969 and assigned to Japan.  She received orientation from September to December.  She sailed from San Francisco about January 7th and was sick for the full 2 weeks at sea.  She received language study in Tokyo, and was an educational evangelist in Kitakyushu, Japan, from 1972-1980 and a religious education promoter in Shimonoseki, Japan.  Mary was assigned as a church starter in Tokuyama City, Japan, in 1991, and served in that position until her retirement.

Mary saw each area of her work as a blessing.  At the Baptist Girls School (Seinan Jo Gakuin), she enjoyed working with the girls and learned much from them about the Japanese people.  Work in Japan was slow.  She felt that when she took one step forward, she went backward two steps.

When she moved to Shimonoseki, she worked in evangelism and was a church planter. She did not know anyone and had no Christian fellowship.  It was an extremely lonely time but her relationship with the Lord grew greatly.   This church became her fellowship.  Mary was assigned as a church starter in Tokuyama City, Japan, in 1991.  At Tokuyama she really enjoyed her ministry.  It was hard work but she and another woman began this church.  Afterwards, she enjoyed the role of pastor until a Japanese pastor could be called.  She enjoyed evangelism outreach, the visits in noodle shops and coffee shops to witness to people and to get to know them.

She recalls the song by Frank Sinatra “I did it my Way” but Mary knew that church planting and missions had to be done God’s way.  The church that she eventually planted there is still holding together after 20 years without a pastor.

She knew the church people had to grow – individually and as a church body.  For her to prepare a message once a month and to take responsibility for the church to grow, she felt like Jeremiah.  When home from church or work, she read Jeremiah and what God was going to do there.  She wanted to think like Jeremiah, to be as forward as Jeremiah was, and to live long enough to pull together a good Japanese group.

Mary would still like to go back to Japan and help the church to grow.

When asked about the success of her ministry and how God moved in it, Mary replied that thinking as she had learned to do in Japan, she could not speak of spiritual success.  Rather she stated that she desired to be faithful to serve God and was only His faithful servant.   He blessed what He enabled her to do.  She shared that sometimes she felt His moving and sometimes she felt His silence but in all of her life, He was with her to bring about His kingdom.  Mary felt He was gracious to have called her and to have allowed her to be involved in His work.  She rejoiced to see someone come to Christ and to follow through in baptism.  She loved to meet a Christian family because they were very rare.  She loved to hear how people came to Christ when it seemed impossible for someone to come to Christ from a Buddhist family.  She regarded her life as very rich.

As with many things, along with joy, there was sorrow, and such is the case with Mary Swedenburg’s service as a missionary to Japan.  Mary retired in 2004 when IMB’s regulations changed and she could no longer preach as she had done for many years in her church planting work.  Mary was still following in the steps of her mentor Addie Cox who said early in her term of mission work in China that she would rather preach than teach, and was so pleased when she was allowed to go into the rural areas and preach the Gospel.

Mary has many fond memories of her days as a missionary in Japan.  She is very appreciative of the curio cabinet provided by the friends at Cross Roads Baptist Church to the Pickens Baptist Association to house some of her mission memorabilia.

She also remembers that in her youth in Hueytown, she did not always want to go to the church field with her father and work but wanted to stay home and be a “regular teenager.”  She knows that God used those times with her parents in Pickens County God to prepare her for the work that He would call her to do in Japan, and even now back in the States and in Birmingham where she makes her home

James R. Swedenburg, Jr., missionary to South Korea, Taiwan and USA

James Swedenburg, oldest child of Rev. James and Mrs. Swedenburg attended Howard College in Birmingham and later Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.  He had felt the call to Gospel Ministry, which was expressed in life through pastoring, his work as chaplain and later in mission service both nationally and internationally.  After college he served in the Air Force in 1954-1955 and was stationed in Seoul Korea.  It was in Korea that he felt a strong call to do mission work there.

After leaving the military in Korea, , he became a church planter with Home Mission Board and served in Charlotlaroy, PA.  From Charlotlaroy, he and his wife Joyce went to Sherman Texas, to pastor a new church start.  From Sherman he went to York, PA, and from there he was appointed by the Foreign Mission Board to the mission field in 1969.  After orientation, they arrived in Seoul, South Korea in July, 1970, and did language study there.

They felt blessed with their work with the Korean Mission Baptist Convention.  The Korean Christians really believed in prayer and this made the mission work much easier.  They were receptive to the Gospel and experienced growth in great ways.

The Swedenburg’s, along with their three children, Michael, Steven, and Denise  spent approximately six years in the country of South Korean.  In Seoul the children were enrolled in Seoul Foreign School with 23 to 24 different nationalities.  Later the sons attended the Korean Christian Academy and Denise went to school at the Army Base in Pusan.

During their first term in Seoul, they worked with evangelism and then later moved to Pusan, Korean where James served as Chaplain in the (Bill) Wallace Memorial Baptist Hospital.  While in Pusan, Joyce helped with the mission financial books and was mission secretary during annual meetings.

From Korea to Taipei, Taiwan, where James was  pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church.  Following this they returned to the States and after furlough, James  became the Director of Missions at Greater Cleveland (Ohio) Baptist Assn. for 3 years; then to the Greater Pittsburg Baptist Assn.; then as DOM to the Central Baptist Assn., Benton,  AR.  After retirement in 1995, they moved to Hot Springs Village, AR.  His death came in January 2005 after a time of disability from a fall.

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phone: 205-367-8632

mail: PO Box 206 Carrollton, AL 35447

address: 250 Reform St. Carrollton, AL 35447

About Pickens Baptist Association of West Alabama

The Pickens Baptist Association is a family of 36 Baptist congregations in west Alabama. The Association sits east of Columbus, Mississippi, and west of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It cooperates with the Alabama Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. It is a rural missions environment and has a long and proud history of sending its members out into the international missions field.